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Wednesday, April 05, 2006 

Having Their Phil

The Los Angeles Lakers are in much better shape than you realize.

After beating the Rockets 104-88 on Sunday, the Lakers have won 7 of their last 10 and find their won-loss record at 40-35. If the season ended today, they would capture the 7th seed in the West and face the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. That's not overly impressive at first glance, but consider that last season the team collapsed down the stretch en route to finishing 34-48.

The difference has been health and the return of Phil Jackson. The Zen Master has his team peaking at just the right time. Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, and Luke Walton are playing their best basketball of the season as they have grown accustomed to their roles. Obviously, a big part of that comfort level is a better understanding of the triangle offense after 75 games. A less obvious reason for their success is Phil's unique ability to see the big picture.

Take Kwame Brown for example. Watching Kwame on offense during his first games as a Laker was like watching "Envy" starring Jack Black and Ben Stiller-- it was inexplicably brutal. With Jack Black starring and Christopher Walken playing a hobo, you might figure you are in for some good laughs; with Kwame, you see his 7 foot frame run gracefully up and down the floor and expect a good basketball player. Instead, both the movie and the player were supreme disappointments.

With every dropped pass and botched post move, Kwame tested even the most optimistic Laker fans. No one would have blamed Phil if he scrapped plans to develop Kwame and instead went with Andrew Bynum or Brian Cook. Luckily, that's not his style. All along, the Zen Master would only publicly say that Kwame was a long term project and that he would be pleased with Brown's effort so long as he played defense, putting no undue pressure on the mentally fragile big man. With Chris Mihm injured, the mind games paid off; Brown averaged 15 points and 10 boards over his last 5 games before Sunday's contest.

This brief run of competence from Kwame is nothing to get too excited about, but is worth mentioning to illustrate Phil's adept handling of his players. Phil has also done an excellent job handling Kobe this year. There has been very little friction between the two, mainly because Phil knows that the Lakers need Kobe to shoot and shoot often. The complaints about Kobe shooting too much have come from the press and fans this year, not Phil.

Kobe is having an MVP caliber season, highlighted by his 81 and 62 point games. Bryant is averaging a league high 34.8 ppg also just tied Elgin Baylor's team record of 23 games over 40 points in a season. Do you think Dallas is looking forward to facing Kobe in the first round after their entire team was outscored by his 62 points through 3 quarters in December? Do you think Avery Johnson wants to match wits with Phil Jackson? Not a chance.

Obviously, no one is predicting a championship this spring for the Lake Show. This team is lacking another scorer and a true power forward. Fortunately for Jerry Buss, the Lakers do own two first round picks, a couple tradeable bigs (Mihm and Bynum), and an improving salary cap condition. Rumors of deals for Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer, and Kevin Garnett abound on internet boards, though that is clearly not the most accurate source of information. More realistic options for Mitch Kupchak are packaging Chris Mihm and his friendly contract along with a first rounder to either add a veteran (a sign and trade for Nene?) or move into the lottery while searching for an impact 4 (LaMarcus Aldridge?). Or Kupcake could sit tight and wait until next summer when the Lakers will be under the salary cap and able to bid on potential free agents Bosh, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Rashard Lewis, and Chauncey Ba-Ba-Ba- Billups. Don't forget that free agents love LA.

While its always fun to project player movement, Kobe is certainly not looking towards next year. He wants to prove that he can win in the playoffs without Shaq. With Phil and Kobe clicking anything might be possible, but Shaq is going to go deeper into the playoffs than LA this spring. By this time next year however, the Laker franchise will be in a much better long term situation than the Heat.